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BurmaNet News: July 22, 2001
- Subject: BurmaNet News: July 22, 2001
- From: strider@xxxxxxxxxxx
- Date: Sat, 21 Jul 2001 20:20:00
______________ THE BURMANET NEWS ______________
An on-line newspaper covering Burma
July 22, 2001 Issue # 1848
______________ www.burmanet.org _______________
INSIDE BURMA _______
*The Savvy Traveler: Should We Go to Burma?
*Savvy Traveler: Callers give opinions about last week's discussion on
traveling to Burma and other politically incorrect countries
*BBC: Analysis--Burma talks stalled
*Asiaweek: Things are moving fast in Myanmar. Recent gestures by the
junta could lead to the end of the political impasse
*Irrawaddy: Drugs, Generals and Neighbors
*Bangkok Post: No help for minority groups
*Bangkok Post: Police seize heroin, cash in record swoop
*Thai Rath: Dealing with the problem of narcotics
*Irrawaddy: Thailand?s Least Wanted
*The Washington Times: Military opening the gates in Myanmar
__________________ INSIDE BURMA ____________________
The Savvy Traveler: Should We Go to Burma?
[BurmaNet adds--The Savvy Traveler is a weekly program on travel on
National Public Radio in the United States.
To listen to this program over the web, to to
July 13, 2001
Are there places in the world you would never visit? Places that offend
you too much, whether it be human rights policies or treatment of
animals. Indonesia, Turkey, China, Tibet and Cuba are all on a list that
groups such as the UN International Labor Organization suggest we
reconsider as vacation choices at the moment. But the hottest debate
among those advocating politically correct travel right now focuses on
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is the elected leader of
Burma, but her cabinet is waiting in the wings, powerless behind the
violent military junta. She implores foreigners not to give precious
tourist dollars to the violent regime where individuals are routinely
imprisoned for even discussing the military's actions. The anniversary
of the assasination of Aung San Suu Kyi's father and his staff,
so-called Martyr's Day, is coming up this week. It's a time of unrest in
Burma - or Myanmar, as the natives call their country. We sent our
contributor Jeff Tyler to this land of controversy to find out for
himself how the Burmese people are living under the current regime.
By Jeff Tyler, 7/13/2001
Listen in RealAudio Need audio help?
People first settled in what is now Burma about 5000 years ago. And I'm
pretty sure they arrived on this ancient bus. Seats like stone, no
headrest? and of course no heat for the chilly nights and no AC to
off-set the tropical heat. I rode with my knees on my chest, my feet on
crates of tomatoes, following the muddy Irrawaddy River out the window,
as it cut through golden fields of wheat. The radio worked more reliably
than the motor, and we stopped repeatedly for repairs.
As the bus left the capital, Rangoon, we passed huge portraits of
serious old men in uniforms. The ruling military junta. The same guys
who refused to recognize the country's democratically elected leader,
Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi (Ong San Sue Chee), and keep her under
house arrest. The same men who ordered soldiers to crush the democracy
movement in 1988, killing over 3 thousand people.
I almost never dealt with the military during my two weeks in Burma.
Every few hours, our bus was stopped at a checkpoint, and the driver
jumped out to get his papers stamped. The young soldiers rarely came
onboard. And when they did, they never hassled me.
The government did, however, try to keep tourists at a distance from the
Burmese. The moment I arrived at the airport, after getting my passport
stamped, the Burmese were funneled one way -- to baggage claim. The
tourists detoured to the currency exchange, where we were forced to
change 200 dollars into a nearly worthless money used only by
At customs, a man in a military-style uniform searched my bags. I was
sweating here. Journalists are rarely allowed into the country, so I was
traveling on a tourist visa. I figured, if the customs guy discovered my
microphone and minidisk recorder, I'd get kicked out. Before ever
leaving the airport. But the official inspected my bags halfheartedly. I
I took a taxi into Rangoon and dropped my bags at a budget hotel I
picked at random from my Lonely Planet guidebook. Down near the sleepy
railway station. Where the asphalt turned to dirt. Five bucks a night,
including cable TV that picked up The Tonight Show. As I watched Jay
Leno win laughs at the expense of George Bush, I remembered reading
about two Burmese political satirists. Tame by the standards of American
late-night monologues, their jokes poked fun at the military leaders
here. The comedians fast found themselves in prison doing hard labor.
Around eight that night, I turned off the tube and wandered around
downtown Rangoon. It was shuttered up like a small town on Sunday
morning. I pressed on to my destination: The Strand, the kind of place
that might attract ex-pats on a Friday night, who could share insights
on life in Burma.
The only other customers in the bar: Three European backpackers in their
early 30's. Hippy types playing pool and drinking half-priced cocktails.
I chatted with one barefoot woman, a Brit, who I'll call Lisa - she
asked me not to use her real name. She'd been to Burma in 1994 and was
on the last day of her second trip. But when I told her I was a
journalist, she scanned the room for eaves-dropping waiters, then walked
away. When I approached her again more discretely, she agreed to talk to
me, but not here. Not where we were being watched.
We ended up back at her 12-dollar a night hotel room. Well-maintained,
like an upscale Motel 6. With a phone, a mini-bar, and cable TV.
With CNN on to cover our conversation, Lisa spoke freely.
Lisa: "When you visit certain areas of this country and you speak with
certain people, you do gain a certain paranoia. And even when you're
speaking with other travelers at tea shops, I found myself looking over
my shoulder this time...and we were like, 'you mustn't speak too loudly.
You don't know who is listening.'"
So it's hard to find people willing to talk? I asked. No, she said, it's
better now. On her first trip, back in 1994, locals feared any dialogue
Lisa: "It's changed a great deal in that, now, you'll get everybody
speaking to you. Whether it's just to say hello, whether it's to
practice their English, or whether it's to put their side about what's
happening politically in the country."
Jeff: "So they will talk to you about politics?"
Lisa: "Certain people will. Yeah."
Those 'certain people' had told Lisa stories of family members beaten by
government goons. People who disappeared, never to be seen again. But
when I pressed for details, Lisa said...
Lisa: "It's really difficult to explain, because then you'll obviously
be able to pin-point who I've been talking to."
Jeff: "So you're reluctant to them me their stories because..."
Lisa: "I'm not reluctant to tell the stories, but most of the people
I've met are very keen to give you information. But for example, if you
we're to use that information in the form of a book or an article, they
make sure to say that you're not allowed to use their names, and you're
not allowed to use the place they came from, because even if I were to
change the name of the person, but say they were from 'X' town, they say
the government would be able to trace them. That it would be pretty easy
to pin-point them."
After promising to take her responsibility for these people as my own,
she gave me the name and location of a Burmese man who might speak
She also suggested I visit a few of the must-see sights in Burma. So I
set off to find a politically outspoken mystery man, stopping along the
way at the temples of Bagan and the artisan village at Inle Lake.
Inle Lake is a tourist trap. The residents live in wooden homes on
stilts in the middle of the lake, traveling by boat.
At the weavers shop, women pressed bare feet against the peddles of
wooden looms. At the blacksmith, sweaty, shirtless men slammed hammers
against molten iron. Turning out ceremonial daggers for tourists. . It
reminded me of Williamsburg, Virginia, where actors re-create the life
of artisans in the 18th century. But here, the poor men and women are
LIVING in the past.
I struck up a conversation with a restaurant owner. When we were alone,
the soft-spoken man said in halting English that he'd lose his business
permit if he were caught talking about the military government. He'd be
out of work and lose what little he had. I asked him to say THAT on
tape... Surely, the government wouldn't object to him saying tourism
supports small business? He stared into space. His eyes filled with
tears. All he said was: "I have a wife and children."
Later, I walked along the river bank with a woman I met at my hotel: an
introspective 28-year old Swedish backpacker named Maria. I wanted to
know why the stigma attached to Burma as a tourist destination didn't
keep her away.
Maria: "Myanmar has a great fascination and attraction because it's been
a closed country. It's like an adventure. In my own naive, Swedish way,
like an adventure of seeing something that is off-limits. It has an
attraction to do stuff that is forbidden so to speak."
Ironic, isn't it: the Western boycott of tourism has helped make Burma
attractive, appealing to those who like to venture WAY off-the-beaten
path, where white people are still unusual guests. Fewer than
200-thousand thrill-seekers visited in the year 2000. Compare that to
the 9 MILLION foreigners who flooded neighboring Thailand in the same
year. And it's only in the last decade or so that Burma opened for
tourists at all. After the military coup in 1962, the army closed the
borders. Just the kind of place for backpackers who imagine themselves
intrepid. Cocky travelers who engage in a game Maria describes as
Maria: "'OH, but you should have gone to THAT place. Oh, you didn't go
there. Uh-huh.' It's the kind of status thing of going to the most
un-touristic areas, doing the most un-touristic things...it's the same
way of coming here to Myanmar. It also have a status, kind of. 'Oh, so
you went to Southeast Asia, did you go to Myanmar?' No, I chose not to.
'Oh, it was a great place. You really missed something there. Pity.'"
Jeff: "Bragging rights."
Maria: "Bragging. Yah, it's bragging."
But when backpackers push the limits in Burma, somebody else pays the
consequences. Back at our hotel, the proprietor told Maria and me a
cautionary tale about another tourist. Flaunting his independence, this
kid ventured into an area off-limits to foreigners. But like all
travelers, he had recorded his passport and visa number at the hotel.
The government apparently pays attention, because when he checked out
and went off the radar for a day, stern officials showed up to harass
the HOTEL OWNER. They forced him to take time off work to drive around
the country until he found the guy and dragged him back to the tourist
That night, I began to fear that the government might be tracking ME. If
at some point down the road they confiscated my notes, they'd be able to
trace my steps back to the people I interviewed. So I started writing
the names of people and places in code.
The next day, I put my worries in check and got on a bus bound for what
travel writers describe as 'one of the true wonders of Asia' and the
place in Burma 'not to be missed' - the ancient city of Bagan.
There's no hyperbole in calling Bagan one of the greatest Buddhist
monuments - up there with Angkor in Cambodia. But you don't get the same
massive crowds. At the largest temple in Bagan, with the sacred Buddha
footprints and the 900 year old statues. I bumped into a few tourists.
But with hundreds of earth-toned pagodas spread over miles of desert, I
could peddle my beat-up rental bike from temple to temple with only
cactus and crows for company.
I returned again and again to one shrine. Along with bald-headed monks
in cinnamon robes, I bought flowers for the altar. Then took off my
shoes and squeezed in with the men and women, young and old, bowing in
prayer before golden statues of Buddha. I sat still in the corner,
intoxicated by the aroma of fresh jasmine and over-ripe fruit. But as
any Buddhist will tell you, such peace is transitory.
A few days later, I finally found the mystery man Lisa had told me
about. You'll understand if I don't tell you where he lives. Let's call
him James. We met in a tea shop. Worried that my interview might get him
in trouble, I insisted we go someplace where James wouldn't be
overheard. So we sat behind the tea shop, under the drone of a
James was eager to talk, but he understood why others were fearful.
James: "They have to risk their life. And they can be tortured, and
probably they will be disappeared. Disappeared means that they will be
killed. Because police officers and military intelligence are watching
I glanced nervously over my shoulder every few minutes, but James never
whispered. In a defiant voice, he spoke about dangerous subjects. Like
the drug trade. Burma is the world's second largest producer of heroin,
and the drug lords and their kick-backs make the military leaders rich.
James: "Heroin is very PROFITABLE. It takes the whole year, hard work,
but they make more and more profit. Half of their profit, millions, will
go to the government."
James said Burma's economy is based on isolation and corruption.
Remember all those road-blocks I saw on my bus rides? Turns out the
drivers had to pay-off the soldiers at every checkpoint. James: "Their
salary is 4500 kyats for one month. They can make three times more than
one month's salary in one day. A good sideline to keep a gate. As a
Speaking of 'gate-keepers,' I wondered what James thought about the
campaign to keep tourists away from Burma. So, I asked him the question
that had weighed on my mind since I arrived...should I even be here?
James: "It's a good idea to come to Burma. If the travelers come as a
backpacker, individually, then they can meet with local people and will
know what is the true color of the people. So it's better to come to
Burma and see."
But don't come on a package tour, James said. THOSE tourists spend their
money at fancy government hotels and never meet the average Burmese
people. Comforting words. Because they didn't apply to me. As an
independent traveler, I could feel good about my journey.
A few days later, I was worried again. The panic struck during my last
stop - Mandalay. A city that sounds like a dream, but is really just a
mess of traffic jams and multi-story buildings. At a disco, I met a man
who confirmed everything James said. But as I was leaving, he added a
"You think you're being sly," he said. 'You think you're not being
watched. But you're mistaken. The military intelligence was trained by
the East German secret police, the Stazi. They know who you are. You
should expect to be thoroughly searched as you leave the country."
Luckily, he was wrong. No one searched me at the airport. But of course,
I couldn't know that. So I spent the night before editing the interviews
on my minidisk. Erasing references I thought might compromise the
Then it hit me. I was experiencing the country from the local's
perspective. I had learned that in Burma, you don't need to wait for the
censor. If you wanted to protect someone, you censored yourself. Like
other travelers I'd met here, I felt somehow responsible for the local
people. Burma had become more than someone else's problem. In a small
way, it became my own. Which is maybe the best reason to come here. To
add a voice in support of people who are afraid to speak.
In Burma, I'm Jeff Tyler for The Savvy Traveler.
Savvy Traveler: Callers give opinions about last week's discussion on
traveling to Burma and other politically incorrect countries
July 21, 2001 Saturday
DIANE NYAD, host:
This is the SAVVY TRAVELER. I'm Diana Nyad.
A report we ran last week, by our contributor Jeff Tyler, brought Burma
into focus. This is a country under the microscope of human rights
activists right now, and there is tremendous controversy as to whether
to travel there or not. Here's a snippit of Jeff Tyler's story just to
jog your memory.
JEFF TYLER reporting:
The Western boycott of tourism has helped make Burma attractive,
appealing to those who like to venture way off the beaten path, where
white people are still unusual guests. Just the kind of place for
backpackers to imagine themselves intrepid.
NYAD: As you might expect, the story raised some fiery responses.
Unidentified Woman: (Voice mail) Voice message received 3 PM.
NYAD: That's right. It's time to check the SAVVY TRAVELER voice mail.
Let's find out what listeners thought of last week's show.
Unidentified Man: This type of blatant hypocrisy just is a complete slap
in the face.
NYAD: Youch! Yes, hypocrisy, blatant and otherwise, was a recurring
theme in the calls and letters we received. But let's back up a bit. We
knew the Burma story addressed the dicey issues, so we decided to get an
expert opinion from Laura Marsh, who directs an association in Britain
called Tourism Concerned. It's kind of a watchdog group that warns
people against traveling to countries where citizens' basic rights are
Now, Laura said Burma is off limits to anyone with a conscience, and
most of you agreed with her. But then I asked her where she was going on
Ms. LAURA MARSH: Well, I'm going next--next Friday I'm off to--to Cuba.
NYAD: Cuba! That's where the hypocrisy part comes in. Here's what Mary
Ann from Florida said.
MARY ANN: I was very disappointed to hear a voice that is trying to
bring a dignity to the people of one country and then turn around and
say that she's spending her dollars or her pounds or whatever in a
country like Cuba.
NYAD: And here's Steve from Philadelphia.
STEVE: The human rights violations of Cuba are really in a category of
their own that I believe are far worse than any that one could cite
relative to Burma, China or any other politically incorrect place.
NYAD: Well, although many listeners did agree with Steve, some of you
argued that tourism does help promote political freedom. Here's Kathryn
KATHRYN: The more movement there is in and out of a country, the more
you are going to open that country up to new ideas. You're going to get
that country in touch with the rest of the world. The United States
boycotts countries for, I think, very arbitrary reasons.
NYAD: Clearly, this is a complex issue, and we don't pretend to have the
answers. But in keeping with the vision of public radio, we will
continue to ask the tough questions.
We still like to get light and have some laughs, but we're not afraid to
explore deeper issues. Through it all, we want to know what you think.
Call us anytime at 888-728-8728, or e-mail us at savvytraveler.org.
BBC: Analysis--Burma talks stalled
July 19, 2001
Aung San Suu Kyi normally does attend the ceremony
By regional analyst Larry Jagan
The failure of Burma's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to attend the
Martyr's Day ceremony commemorating the assassination of her father in
1947 is being seen as a clear sign that the dialogue process has stalled
Aung San Suu Kyi has clearly rebuffed the military authorities by not
attending the Martyr's Day event
Secret talks between the military authorities and the opposition leader
have been going on for more than seven months.
But the talks appear to have produced few concrete results, despite the
release of more than 150 political prisoners since January.
Both Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma's Generals are anxious not to be seen as
the side which ended this fragile dialogue process.
Aung San Suu Kyi has clearly rebuffed the military authorities by not
attending the Martyr's Day event although she sent a senior party
representative in her place.
Aung San Suu Kyi is rarely seen in public
At the official ceremony, U Lwin said he was representing Aung San Suu
Kyi and her party the National League for Democracy (NLD) on her
"It was her decision not to attend the ceremony," U Lwin told party
Opposition sources told the BBC that they believe she did not attend
because the military authorities had not done enough to meet the minimum
goodwill gestures she had requested in June through the UN envoy envoy
for Burma, the Malaysian diplomat Razali Ismail.
These include the release of political prisoners and the removal of
restrictions on her and two other senior party leaders.
The military insist that they are working on building trust and have
released many of the country's political prisoners. More than 50 have
been released since the UN envoy's last visit to Burma at the beginning
Human rights groups estimate that there are still nearly 2,000 political
prisoners still in Burmese jails.
But the opposition leader suggested to the military authorities that
there are five categories of prisoners that should be released as soon
as possible. According to diplomats in Rangoon, all of the top category
- people being detained in government guesthouses without trial - have
now been released.
So far the military have tried to take the maximum credit for the
minimum concessions to the NLD
They believe there are some 200 political prisoners who fall into the
other categories that the opposition leader wants released before the
end of July.
The most crucial demand though is probably the removal of the
restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi and two other members of the NLD
central executive, Tin U and Aung Shwe. They have been held under
virtual house arrest since last September when they tried to leave
Rangoon by train to attend a party meeting in Mandalay.
A senior opposition source said he thought the opposition leader was not
prepared to go to the ceremony unless she was unconditionally released
from house arrest.
According to a Burmese Government source, the generals were surprised by
Aung San Suu Kyi's failure to attend Thursday's ceremony, particularly
as they had released 11 political prisoners day before, including Dr
Aung Khin Zint who is seen as a key member of the NLD and close to the
opposition leader and the writer Nway Nway San.
They will also see this as a clear message to the international
community that the talks have stalled again. So far the military have
tried to take the maximum credit for the minimum concessions to the NLD.
As one western diplomat told the BBC: "The Burmese military leaders will
only do as much as is necessary to deflect international criticism of
their intransigence. They want to drag the process out as long as
The Burmese military will now have to prove that they are really
committed to the process of confidence-building - something they have
already privately assured the opposition leader and the international
Already a return visit by the UN envoy is being delayed. Rangoon has
told Dr Razali that he cannot come before the end of August now - having
originally promised to allow him to visit later this month.
Although no one believes the talks have irretrievably broken down, most
analysts believe they have stalled again. This may also be because the
talks are on the verge of entering new phase.
Only more concessions by the military can keep the talks from being
Asiaweek: Things are moving fast in Myanmar. Recent gestures by the
junta could lead to the end of the political impasse
July 20, 2001
It's possible Aung San Suu Kyi will be released from house arrest before
Martyrs' Day, July 19. If she is, it could mean the beginning of the end
to Myanmar's status as a pariah nation
Speculation is growing in Myanmar that pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu
Kyi will soon be released from house arrest. Some believe she may even
be freed before Martyrs' Day, July 19, which marks the 1947
assassination of her father, Gen. Aung San, the father of the modern
nation. Straws in the wind: Over the past nine months, Suu Kyi has been
meeting regularly with senior military officers at her Yangon home in an
attempt to thrash out a political settlement.
During this time, the regime has released most of the detained members
of her National League for Democracy (NLD), and the two sides have
observed an informal truce in which they have ceased denunciations of
each other. Last week the regime allowed the party to begin reopening
its branch offices. Suu Kyi has also been permitted to attend private
meetings outside her compound, escorted by a military intelligence
Some neighboring countries believe the growing rapport signals that an
end is in sight to Myanmar's pariah status. Malaysian Prime Minister
Mahathir Mohamad, who has been actively encouraging the regime to reach
a settlement with the pro-democracy camp, said earlier this year that he
expects new elections will be held. Earlier this month, Thailand's
defense minister, Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, who has close ties with
the Yangon generals, said that the regime and Suu Kyi's party are poised
to announce the formation of a national government.
Suu Kyi's release from house arrest might coincide with news of the
formation of a transitional government, including civilians named by the
NLD. A new constitution could be finalized later and elections held
within five years. A political thaw before the ASEAN Regional Forum in
Hanoi on July 27 would also ease the pressure on Myanmar from Western
nations attending the meeting. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who
will be at the session, might even meet his Myanmar counterpart. One
thing is certain: Releasing Suu Kyi will spur the already heightened
interest of foreign businesses looking at Myanmar, as evidenced by a
recent $ 400-million investment by Canada's Ivanhoe Mining Co
Irrawaddy: Drugs, Generals and Neighbors
Drug production, once the domain of insurgents fighting against Rangoon,
has become the cornerstone of the mainstream economy, and the bane of
by Aung Zaw/Mae Sai
In May, after a three-day drug meeting sponsored by the United Nations
International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) to coordinate
drug-suppression, Burmese officials managed to impress foreign
governments and media with the seriousness of their efforts to stamp out
the illicit drug trade.
Drugs with a street value of almost US $1 billion in North America,
consisting of opium, heroin and amphetamines, went up in smoke as
diplomats, Asian officials and Burmese leaders watched.
However, Kyauk Ye, about 35 years of age, wasn?t at all impressed, but
rather amused. Sitting inside a small house on the Thai-Burma border,
the Chinese man from Yunnan province smiled while smoking Burmese
Then he growled: "You know the Burmese are very clever." I nodded and
waited to hear more. "They don?t just steal from other people; they also
steal from themselves." Having ended his brief statement, he paused and
went back to smoking his cheroot.
Kyauk Ye?s brief comment explains everything about the recent
drug-burning show in Rangoon. The destruction of seized drugs was staged
to coincide with a regional meeting held to coordinate the anti-drug
efforts of Cambodia, China, Laos, Burma, Thailand and Vietnam.
Drug-burning shows have become popular ceremonies in Burma, which is now
a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), and they
have made a public relations virtue out of the necessity to dispose of
dangerous drugs. Burma has already held more than a dozen such events.
Perhaps the delegates from Asean countries and UNDCP officials were
pleased to witness such an event. However, for Kyauk Ye, who recently
came from northern Shan State, the drug burning show was merely a PR
stunt staged by the ruling junta, now known as the State Peace and
Development Council (SPDC).
Kyauk Ye has an answer.
Last year he was seen in the Tang-yan area of northern Shan State. This
territory is now controlled by ethnic rebels who have reached cease-fire
agreements with the ruling junta. They have been permitted to grow opium
and maintain their drug factories.
Kyauk Ye leased a four-acre field of opium in the area of Tang-yang. He
registered his name and address with a local Burmese battalion before
growing the opium, and promised to pay opium tax after harvesting.
CATCH OF THE DAY Seized heroin stored by the Food and Drug
Administration in Bangkok
"Everything is open there," Kyauk Ye spoke in Burmese with his heavy
Chinese accent. He had four opium farmers, but some owners in that area
hired 50 to 80 farmers to take care of their poppy fields, which are ten
times larger than Kyauk Ye?s. Of course their location is better too.
"Some owned 30 to 40 acres," Kyauk Ye said.
Before coming to Burma, Kyauk Ye learned Burmese in Ruili, a Chinese
border town. His plan was to make a fortune in Burma. "All my business
(in Burma) has been illegal since I arrived there."
He wasn?t alone. His friends who are also Chinese from Yunnan Province
came to northern Shan State. Entering Burma isn?t so difficult. "If you
have 30,000 kyat you can get an ID card." Kyauk Ye said that since he
came into Burma 15 years ago he has held 30 different ID cards.
When he was 20, he joined local drug dealers and made friends with Shan
rebel groups in northern Shan State. His adventurous business began in
1990, two years after the military regime staged a bloody coup in
Eighty Chinese and Shan carrying automatic assault rifles walked from
northern Shan State to the India border to deliver heroin. Kyauk Ye was
among them. "We had 40 mules carrying about 900kg of heroin with them."
The journey took three months to reach the Indian border. They were
tough jungle trips. Sometimes they encountered unknown armed groups who
tried to seize the heroin.
"We were ready to sacrifice our lives for our goods. They could take our
lives but not our heroin." On some occasions, his friends who were sick
or wounded were left with guns in the jungle. In one case, he had to
leave a friend with a bullet in his head.
In any event, in the end, Kyauk Ye made a handsome amount of money: "I
invested 1.3 million kyat, and got back 3 million kyat."
But Kyauk Ye isn?t as lucky as some of his friends from Yunnan. Those
who also ran drug businesses have now bought houses in Mandalay and
Rangoon. He refused to reveal the names of these friends, who are now
influential businessmen and close to regional commanders and army
officials in Burma.
Now Kyauk Ye has found temporary sanctuary in Thailand?driven out of
Burma not by a rival drug gang, but by the Burmese army. The reason was
that he could not pay the opium tax to the local Burmese army unit.
The Burmese army demanded that he pay 600,000 kyat from his poppy field,
but bad weather destroyed his crop. On a good year, he said, his field
could produce 60 viss (about 98 kg), valued at 300,000 kyat per viss.
Kyauk Ye said that cultivators who could not pay the opium tax were
arrested. "Even if you don?t make any profit, they will come and collect
opium tax anyway," he said, adding that the Burmese army prefers opium
Last year?s bad weather ruined Kyauk Ye?s opium crop, thus he failed to
make any profit.
Some drug enforcement officials have stated that opium production in
Burma has dropped due to weather conditions and is nothing to do with
suppression efforts. By all accounts, the opium business in Burma is
still alive and kicking.
According to recent Deutsche Presse-Agentur press reports, "With the
destruction of Afghanistan?s poppy crop earlier this year, Burma has
reclaimed its crown as the world?s leading producer of opium and heroin,
albeit by default." Previously, Afghanistan was the largest heroin
producer in the world.
Mr. Sandro Calvani, regional representative of the UNDCP, who had
previously praised Rangoon?s efforts in the fight against drugs, also
acknowledged Burma?s preeminence as the new world leader in the
production of some drugs: "In terms of opium production, Myanmar (Burma)
is number one again."
US drug enforcement agencies estimate opium production in Burma last
year to have been about 1,200 tons. Since 1989, a year after the ruling
junta came into power, Burma has produced 2,000?2,600 tons of raw opium
yearly. In the 1970s, production was between 200 to 400 tons annually.
It is estimated that the authorities intercept less than 1 percent of
Burma?s annual opium production?the rest is smuggled out through China
or Thailand and on to the world market.
With Burma becoming the opium king of the world, Kyauk Ye is dying to go
back to run another opium business. "I know dealers in Shan State are
moving to some areas in Kachin State this year. We have found some
places in Hpakan." Ironically, the Kachin Independence Army had
previously declared Kachin State an opium-free zone before it signed a
ceasefire agreement with Rangoon.
Opium dealers are eyeing areas in Hpakan controlled by both the army and
Kachin rebels who have reached a cease-fire agreement with Rangoon.
"Some areas are well-protected and already have mines planted to protect
the opium fields."
Back in Tang-yang, Kyauk Ye knew all the rebels groups?Kokang, Wa,
Kachin and Shan?who have reached a cease-fire in the areas involved in
the opium business. But, he says, "The Wa are the most powerful."
The United Wa State Army (UWSA) has a strong army with 20,000 foot
soldiers. The Wa, who were former members of the Communist party of
Burma (CPB), mutinied in 1989 and reached a cease-fire agreement with
In 1997-1998, according to Kyauk Ye, the UWSA was granted permission by
the government to grow opium for another five years. Thus, he said, many
opium growers wanted to do their business before the deadline expired.
However, according to Khin Maung Myint, a Wa liaison officer who
recently invited several "unbiased" journalists to a Wa town near the
Thai border, the Wa were involved in drug activities until 1996, but are
"We decided to give up this business in 1996 at the insistence of the
Myanmar government and international community and we introduced a poppy
substitution project," he said.
Regional analysts believe that the UWSA is one of the most powerful drug
armies in Southeast Asia, and poses a formidable threat to the region?s
With a strong army and drug money, the Wa empire grew rapidly within a
few years. Like many other ethnic groups that have struck a deal with
Rangoon, the UWSA enjoyed a special relationship with the Rangoon
leaders. In addition to the drug trade, they also engage in legitimate
businesses in Burma.
Since the cease-fire agreement, the Wa have been given permission to
grow opium. The UWSA later started producing amphetamines, also known as
yaa baa, or "crazy pills" in Thai.
The UWSA expanded its empire to include the southern part of Shan State,
close to the Thai border. Thousands of Wa were moved into Mong Yawn,
where they have spent millions of dollars building a modern town in
their territory. Thai officials claim that this town is built by drug
?We are serious about fighting drugs?
Rangoon has had a drug eradication program for 15 years. The Burmese
claim that they are serious about fighting drugs. Surprisingly, the UN
agrees with this claim.
At the recent regional conference in Rangoon, Lt-Gen Khin Nyunt,
Secretary One of the SPDC, said that Burma had made "universally
acknowledged" progress in eradicating opium production, but amphetamines
posed a new and formidable threat.
NOTHING TO HIDE Opium is traded openly near the Chinese border
Calvani recently spoke to BBC World Service: "They (the SPDC) are very
transparent when it comes to monitoring the crops. In some cases, they
have eradicated significantly and effectively, so where the crops have
been eradicated there has not been any new plantation. Opium tax? This
is very bad news. This has never been reported to me before. A double
game? That the government of Burma is lying? They are committed, they
Burma has also cooperated with the UN in running successful programs to
make villagers give up the cultivation of poppy, Calvani said. He said
the UN estimates it will need a $10 million investment by the
international community to fight the drug problem in Burma, as well as
providing alternative sources of income for villagers. But so far only
$1 million has been provided, mostly by the US and Japan.
Indeed, the international community isn?t impressed. Burma is a pariah
in the eyes of the world community. The country?s poor human rights
record and on-going political repression discourages the resumption of
"Instead of giving us aid, the international community has been accusing
and pointing the finger at us. Our achievements are never recognized,"
Col Hkam Awng of the anti-narcotic department in Burma said recently.
Home Minister Tin Hlaing said that his government could not deny that
fact that there were still active areas of drug production and
trafficking in the remote areas near the Burma-China and Burma-Thai
However, quite a different story is emerging from Shan State, where Htun
Ye, an opium farmer from a small village in Kunlong, in northern Shan
state, said the Burmese army would come and meet villagers and encourage
them to grow opium. "When the opium is ripe, they make us pay opium
tax," he added.
Many opium farmers earn quite a decent amount of money. "Daily wages are
high," said Kyauk Ye. "I paid my farmers 1,500 kyat a day." A government
clerk earns about 4,000 kyat per month in Burma.
What about border areas close to Thailand?
Last year, a regional magazine reported that Burmese soldiers have been
ordered by Rangoon to "live off the land"?an order implying permission
to get involved in the drug trade.
Kyauk Ye said that Burmese soldiers are active in fighting against some
armed political groups who are fighting for freedom and autonomy. "But
they won?t bother attacking drug factories because they receive tax."
Instead, Burmese soldiers protect drug refineries.
This totally contradicts the government?s claim, which is endorsed by
But it doesn?t come as a surprise to other observers. After all, Burma
is a haven for drug lords. Lo Hsing Han, chairman of Asia World, is
close to the generals. Asia World is Burma?s biggest conglomerate, with
investments in hotels, construction companies and supermarkets totaling
US $600 million dollars.
Lo, Burma?s former drug kingpin, has his own poppy fields in the
Tang-yang area. "He has about 30 acres in my area," said Kyauk Ye. His
family members, including his grandchildren, used to go there to pose
for pictures by the opium flowers. Lo acted as peace negotiator between
the Wa and Kokang Chinese rebels and the government in the late 1980s.
Lo now lives in a lavish house in Rangoon, where he runs his business
with his son, Steven Law, also known as Htun Myint Naing. They are both
barred from entering the US because of drug-related activities.
Not surprisingly, over the past decade, Burma?s drug trade has become
more integrated into the Burmese economy. By allowing traffickers to buy
legitimate businesses in the country, Rangoon has managed to stave off a
collapse of the economy, strained by more than a decade of sanctions and
The US State Department?s International Narcotics Control Strategy
report identified money laundering in Burma and the reinvestment of
narcotics profits laundered elsewhere as "significant factors in the
Burmese economy overall. " The report adds that country?s underdeveloped
banking system and lack of action against money laundering have created
a "business and investment environment conducive to the use of
drug-related proceeds in legitimate commerce."
Like Lo, Khun Sa, alias Zhang Qifu, the former drug warlord who
surrendered to Burmese authorities in 1996, has been allowed to keep up
his investments. Journalist Bertil Lintner wrote after Khun Sa?s
unexpected surrender: "Shortly after Khun Sa?s surrender, ten new
companies were registered at an obscure address in Rangoon, a virtually
empty room in a townhouse with little more than a sign and a mailbox
outside. The registered owner of the premises is a company called ?The
Good Shan Brothers International Ltd?, which is engaged in ?export,
import, general trading and construction,? according to the 1995-1996
Myanmar Business Directory. Thai intelligence sources added that after
Khun Sa?s surrender, about US$ 24 million were transferred to Rangoon
from various financial institutions in Thailand."
The SPDC even admitted that the government has awarded an official
contract to Khun Sa, who is also wanted by the US, to run buses between
major cities in Burma. Khun Sa, who is now protected by the military
intelligence service in Rangoon, has also opened a casino in Myawaddy, a
border town with Thailand.
Kyauk Ye said that over the last five to seven years, more than 50
percent of all business in Burma has been run by drug money.
Now the UWSA has taken control of Yangon Airways and the Mayflower Bank,
one of the biggest banks in Burma. Moreover, it seems they have plans to
start a telecom business in Burma.
Aik Htein, a little known ethnic Chinese businessman who barely speaks
Burmese, is the managing director of Myanmar Sky-Link Company, which was
awarded the contract to install the GSM system in Burma.
Aik Htein is an influential shareholder in Myanmar?s May Flower bank,
while Yangon Holdings and Yangon Airways also have connections to the
Wa. Aik Htein?s staff refused to answer when asked for information about
their boss?s background. "I cannot tell you," they said, and then hung
up the phone.
Thailand?s war on drugs
As drug lords roam freely in Burma and their business empires grow
overnight, the country?s neighbors, particularly Thailand, have
repeatedly expressed their concern.
Over the last two years, Thailand has shown its frustration toward its
western neighbor, and as a result, a war of words has erupted between
Thailand and Burma.
Thailand accuses Burma of turning a blind eye to illicit trade. Thai
officials say Burma is the main source of amphetamines being smuggled
into Thailand, which is estimated to have a drug-using population of
over two million. Thai drug enforcement officials expect that about 700
million speed pills will come to Thailand from Burma this year.
Thai leaders, both army and civilian, talk about decisive actions
against drug activities along the border, yet they also complain about
the lack of cooperation from Burma.
Thai drug suppression officers believe that the UWSA runs an estimated
55 illegal laboratories along the northern border, which are capable of
producing 600 million pills a year. The Thai Third Army, which is
responsible for the volatile part of the border with Burma, has been
taking a tough stance. Gen Wattanachai Chaimuenwong, commander of the
Third Army, openly criticized Burmese high-ranking army officers?
involvement in the drug business and accused Burma of waging a drug war
Thailand and Burma went into conflict early this year. Fighting broke
out between Thai and Burmese troops near the Mae Sai-Tachilek border
crossing in the Golden Triangle area. Then in May, the Thai used two
F-16 jet fighters to push back Burmese and Wa troops who occupied Hua
Lon hill inside Thailand. Both sides took a tough stance and were
unwilling to back down. The Burmese pledged to fight alongside the Wa,
which prompted Thai army leaders to alert their troops.
Getting the two sides to cooperate is not easy. "What is going on
between Thailand and Myanmar is not helping what we are trying to
achieve," said Mr. Jean Luc Lemahieu, UNDCP country representative.
The Burmese also hit back at Thai officials by accusing them of being
involved in drug trafficking and smuggling chemicals used for yaa baa
production into Burma.
Banleng Inthakhan, 42, a former police sergeant-major, was recently
arrested in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, allegedly possessing 1.1
million speed pills and 40 kg of ephedrine, a chemical precursor used in
The Thai officer had 24 motor vehicles, including two luxury sedans?a
Mercedes Benz and a BMW. In addition to that, officials were astonished
to find that he had 30 bank accounts and more than 100 pieces of jewelry
worth more than 10 million baht (US $220,000).
Banleng Inthakhan is now facing charges. But the question is how many
other Banlengs in Thailand have been doing this business? Most
importantly, who is behind them?
At any event, Thai officials? focus is how to man their border. There
have been reports about Thailand unofficially re-arming Shan and Karen
rebels along the volatile border with Burma. Some analysts suggest that
Thailand is returning to a buffer-zone policy.
"We have to consider it," said Padoe Mahn Sha, secretary general of the
Karen National Union (KNU), referring to the possibility of cooperation
with the Thais in their anti-drug efforts. "We also have a policy to
crackdown on drugs," he added.
KNU troops recently attacked a Burmese army outpost near Myawaddy
opposite Mae Sot, and they said that yaa baa is smuggled into Thailand
from this outpost. Mahn Sha also said that UWSA officials and Chinese
merchants are active in Karen State. Some are collaborating with
pro-Rangoon Karen groups. Drugs from Shan State, Mahn Sha said, pass
through Karen State in order to reach Thai and Asian markets.
Similarly, news regularly appears in Thai papers and on TV news that Col
Yord Serk of Shan State Army in Southern Shan State is now active in
attacking drug traffickers and handing over the seized drugs to Thai
officials. Yord Serk, who was accused by Rangoon of involvement in the
drug trade, claims that his army is fighting against the illicit trade.
As this new golden triangle conflict grows, a major player is
re-appearing on the scene: the US. Adm. Dennis Blair, the chief of the
US Pacific Command, recently told The Bangkok Post, "As a military man,
I support Thailand." He added: "The support that we have for Thailand in
patrolling its border is an important part of our policy." He was in
Thailand to open the 20th Cobra Gold military exercises, joined by Thai,
US and Singaporean forces, and to discuss anti-drugs co-operation with
Over 5,000 US troops took part in the exercise, held near the Thai-Burma
border. The Cobra Gold exercise is part of a joint combined exercise
called Team Challenge 01, which also features the Philippines and
exercises with Australia.
Nevertheless, it is not known where US anti-drug policy is leading.
Since US President Richard Nixon made his famous "War on Drugs" speech
in the summer of 1971, the US has been active in attacking drug barons,
but there has been little evaluation of the success or failure of
The US is now giving training to Thai Task Force 399 to fight drugs. US
Special Forces are now stationed in northern Thailand. The task force is
made up of elements of the Third Army and the Border Patrol Police. The
US also supplied two Black Hawk helicopters to the army as part of its
Rangoon alleges that the US unit was intended for intervention in Burma,
although Thai and US officials played down the location, saying it was a
matter of rotation. Burma hit back at Thailand, attacking the country?s
revered Royal Family. At the same time, Rangoon called up thousands of
war veterans and urged them to prepare for a contingency plan in the
event of an attack on its territory by its "hostile" neighbor.
While the two nations are pointing fingers at each other, drug
traffickers in Burma are finding new routes to transport their drugs to
the world market.
According to Thai intelligence sources, traffickers in Burma have found
a new route to transport drugs from southern Burma.
In January this year, Thai officials seized five million yaa baa pills
and 100 kg of heroin in the Andaman Sea. The drugs came from Burma. Thai
authorities said that the seizure confirmed a new theory that
traffickers had changed their transportation route from land to sea.
Usually, heroin and speed pills are transported to Thailand, Laos, China
or India by land and are then sent on to the world market. A few years
ago, Kyauk Ye himself sent 200 viss of raw opium to Kachin State by a
car owned by a cease-fire group which he refused to name.
But some cease-fire groups active in northern Shan State, he said, would
have sent as many as 4,000 viss of opium to the Chinese border by truck
Kyauk Ye is still nostalgic about his three-month long trip to the India
border. He refused to reveal the name of the Shan captain who led the
opium convoy there, as he is still alive and still involved in this
business. Kyauk Ye is proud of his loyalty, but he sniffed at the
Burmese. "Even in the opium business, the Burmese government is most
"They seize heroin and opium, as has been shown on TV and in newspapers.
They later re-sell them in the domestic market, and then they re-seize
the drugs and re-sell them again. That?s how they make such a profit."
As things stand at the moment, Rangoon?s efforts to shake off its
nefarious reputation are not winning many friends. But that?s fine with
Kyauk Ye, who says the regime?s pariah status is well deserved.
The opium business in Burma is going to last for decades, says Kyauk Ye,
who is preparing to return to grow opium in Kachin State. He says he
doesn?t care about Calvani or Adm. Blair or Gen Wattanachai. But he
admires Lo, Aik Htein and a few other rich businessmen in Burma.
Who knows? One day he might even find himself working out of a posh
office and rubbing elbows with the generals in Rangoon. Good luck, Kyauk
Bangkok Post: No help for minority groups
July 21, 2001
Defence Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh will declare a hands-off stance
towards backing anti-Rangoon minority groups to mark his July 23-24
visit to Burma.
Thai forces would stop giving support to Burmese minority groups,
including the Shan State Army and the Karen National Union, a source
said. This was the gist of a pledge Gen Chavalit would make to Burmese
Prime Minister Than Shwe.
The Burmese government would be asked to pledge co-operation with
Thailand on drugs and not help the Wa with drug production, the source
"In fact, the military stopped supporting minorities long ago. But there
might be local-level relationships and some humanitarian help remaining.
Some minority people might come to ask for food occasionally.
"After Gen Chavalit's statement is made, we will completely stop
supporting or doing things in favour of minority people," the source
Thai security forces would round up minority people using Thai soil as a
base to undermine Rangoon.
"We will not crack down on minority groups. But neither will we help
their operations nor turn a blind eye," he said.
Gen Chavalit had already sent out word to the army, in particular the
First and Third armies.
Gen Chavalit will visit Burma accompanied by the supreme commander and
the chiefs of the three armed forces. Third Army commander Lt-Gen
Watanachai Chaimuanwong said his troops had never helped minority
groups, even Shan rebels whose anti-drug efforts indirectly benefited
Bangkok Post: Police seize heroin, cash in record swoop
July 21 2001
Seven arrested in two-city operation
Narcotics police seized 74kg of heroin and seized nearly 90 million baht
in cash and bank deposits in this year's biggest drug haul.
Police said the drugs were smuggled from laboratories in Pangsang,
Burma's northern Shan State, through Laos to Chiang Saen district in
The drugs were seized in Bangkok on Tuesday and were believed to be
destined for the United States.
Seven suspects, five men and two women, were arrested.
The seven were placed under police surveillance for some time before
simultaneous police raids in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
The suspects were Somporn Thaweeapiradeephum, Thanu or Ar Phing
Manjaisak, 44, Phongphan Pirom, 40, Pongpipit Satpithak, 50, and his son
Watthanasin, 22. The other two, Somsri Janhom, 53, and Nithas Nuprasert,
45, were known by the Thai and US Drugs Enforcement Administration to
have close ties with Wei Hsueh-kang, a fugitive drugs warlord, who heads
methamphetamine production in the United Wa State Army in the Shan
Police said they decided to make their move after a long surveillance
upon learning Somporn contacted drug producers in Burma and intended to
bring the drugs into Thailand.
After her arrest in Bangkok, Somporn told police Thanu and Phongphan
were to pick up the shipment for her in Chiang Saen district, Chiang
Police followed the two drug couriers to Chiang Mai and arrested them
before they could deliver the heroin to Somporn in Bangkok.
The two confessed in subsequent interrogations and said the heroin,
weighing 74kg, was delivered to them by Pongpipit, an automobile dealer,
and Watthanasin. Pongpipit apparently ran his automobile business in
Chiang Rai as a front to sell drugs.
The information led police to Pongpipit's home in Bangkok where he and
his son were arrested after a search yielded 22 million baht in cash.
Bank books carrying deposits worth 13 million baht in 12 different
accounts were also seized.
Police said the investigation revealed Pongpipit and his son often
transferred drug money from several bank accounts to Somporn's bank
accounts to purchase drugs from dealers in Burma.
Profits from the trade were transferred to the bank accounts of the
other two suspects, Somsri and Nithas.
Police said they searched the pair's homes in Bangkok and seized about
eight million baht in cash and another 40 million baht in bank deposits.
Fifteen luxury cars were also seized from the gang.
Police said five of the suspects were charged with possessing and
trafficking in heroin. The group faces a jail term of up to 10 years if
found guilty of money-laundering. They could face the death penalty if
found guilty of heroin trafficking.
Police said they believed there were more collaborators and expected to
make more arrests soon.
Vassana Permlarp, the Anti-Money Laundering Office secretary-general,
said he was convinced more money and assets illegally obtained from the
drug gang were likely to be hidden somewhere. His office would
investigate the matter.
Gen Thammarak Issarangkun na Ayutthaya, PM's Office minister, said the
heroin cost 450,000 baht a kilo and could fetch 10 times more in the
Thai Rath: Dealing with the problem of narcotics
[Editorial printed in the Thai language paper Thai Rath, translated and
reprinted in The Bangkok Post, July 21, 2001]
The Thaksin government seems to be serious in pushing its campaign
against narcotic drugs, which is one of its top priority issues.
Soon after taking office, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra held a
workshop in Chiang Rai where a new anti-drugs strategy was considered.
Recently, the prime minister ordered the Royal Thai Police Office to
draw up a list of policemen suspected of involvement in the drug trade.
Those found guilty would be dismissed.
The Office later announced that nearly 300 commissioned and
non-commissioned police officers were involved in the drug trade.
Joining in the fray, a deputy director of the Internal Security
Operations Command announced that Isoc had blacklisted a number of
politicians suspected of involvement in the drug trade. Among the names
on its list were former cabinet ministers.
These revelations are not new. News and rumours about politicians and
civil servants engaging in the drug trade were circulated in the past.
Researchers have delved into this problem and come up with damning
conclusions about the "influential people" behind it. However, none of
these alleged ringleaders was arrested. But without evidence, how can we
arrest them, asked the police.
Prime Minister Thaksin means what he says. Several drug convicts have
been executed under the reasoning that they were a threat to national
But can we get to the bottom of the problem and nail the big fish that
run the drug networks from behind the scenes? Even if we secure
co-operation from Burma, where drug factories are located, and try to
stem the flow of drugs from across the border, the problem will remain
as long as there are local dealers and consumers.
If lack of evidence poses a hindrance to the government's campaign
against drugs, then something must be done about it.
Perhaps, disciplinary action is the answer. If, say, a government
official is suspected of involvement in the drug trade but there is no
hard evidence to prove his guilt, the official's superior might consider
suspending or dismissing him for misconduct.
When a civilian government was overthrown many years ago, the
coup-makers set up a panel to investigate the "unusual wealth" of the
The panel managed to dig into the backgrounds of these ministers and
come up with some evidence.
Now, how about some investigation into the backgrounds of suspected
Irrawaddy: Thailand?s Least Wanted
As the push to resettle Burmese exiles in third countries continues
apace, those who remain in Thailand?s "Safe Area" for student activists
have reason to fear for the future.
by Neil Lawrence/Ban Maneeloy
It?s eight o?clock Saturday morning, and Ban Maneeloy, a nondescript
Thai village some two hours? drive west of Bangkok, is bracing for an
invasion. Hundreds of Burmese rebels suddenly descend upon the village,
and within hours, it?s all over: Hastily set-up roadside stalls are just
as quickly dismantled, and residents of Maneeloy?s holding center for
Burmese students, armed with a week?s supply of vegetables and dry
goods, quietly amble back into the "Safe Area"?a euphemism for what is,
to all appearances, a medium-security prison.
DANGER: SAFE AREA AHEAD Maneeloy?s holding center for Burmese students
has a reputation for violence
Few places better capture the ironic tensions that exist between
Thailand and its most unwelcome "guests"?the thousands of dissidents who
have fled persecution in Burma since 1988, only to find themselves
alternately tolerated and reviled by their host country. Established in
1992 by the Thai Ministry of Interior (MOI), ostensibly to facilitate
the resettlement of Burmese asylum-seekers in third countries, the Safe
Area has become a symbol of the siege mentality that has gripped both
Thais and the Burmese who live among them?making it, in the minds of
many, one of the most dangerous places in Thailand.
The uneasy calm that has settled upon Maneeloy in recent months belies
its notoriety. Since October 1, 1999, when a group of dissidents with
ties to the Safe Area seized control of the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok,
Maneeloy has borne the brunt of anti-Burmese sentiment in the popular
press. Already regarded as a hotbed of dissent, the camp came under
additional pressure as new restrictions were slapped on residents and
hundreds of other Burmese were forced inside in an effort to literally
contain the Burmese "menace". Simmering tensions came to a head on Oct
18, when several officials from the United Nations High Commission for
Refugees (UNHCR)?an agency openly resented by many in the Safe Area as
an ineffectual protector of their rights?were briefly detained by a
group of residents. Then, in January 2000, ten heavily armed
anti-Rangoon rebels raided a hospital in Ratchaburi province, and the
Safe Area once again became a focus of suspicion. A search for weapons
and explosives yielded nothing, but served to reinforce the impression
that the Safe Area was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.
Attention has shifted away from the Safe Area in the past year, but now
residents are facing a new worry: a renewed push by the Thai authorities
to shut the camp down for good. Despite its reputation among exiles as
the dreaded purgatory where many have had to wait years before starting
new lives in the West, the Safe Area has, as tolerance towards Burmese
dissidents steadily dwindles in Thai society, finally begun to live up
to its name. "The situation is very touchy here, but this is the safest
place," says Safe Area resident Khaing Htun Aung, of the Indigenous
Social Welfare Association, one of several political organizations
operating in the camp.
ON THE INSIDE The MOI office at the Safe Area receives visitors
There are serious concerns about the pace of the closure and the fate of
those who will be left behind. Various dates have been announced, but
the camp could be closed as early as September or "no later than early
next year", according to Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra,
speaking shortly before an official visit to Rangoon on June 19-20. He
concedes, however, that the process of sending Burmese abroad could take
time "due to problems that have accumulated"?namely, the hundreds of
residents who have been deemed ineligible for resettlement, and who
could face harsh penalties for remaining in the camp illegally.
"What we fear most is a life sentence in the IDC," confides one illegal
resident, referring to the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok,
where hundreds of Burmese dissidents have been held in overcrowded cells
since 1988. Like many others, he adds that his only hope is to be
recognized as a Person of Concern (POC) by the UNHCR, which has already
rejected his case once.
At present, around 500 recognized POCs are "at various stages of the
resettlement procedure," according to the UNHCR?s deputy regional
representative, Janvier de Riedmatten. But hundreds of others face a far
more uncertain future, say Safe Area residents. These include so-called
"border cases", who will be relocated to established refugee camps along
the volatile Burmese border, and rejected cases who clearly fear life
outside the prison-like confines of the Safe Area, but who "are not, by
definition, of concern to this office," according to de Riedmatten.
Semantics has played an important role in the UNHCR?s handling of
Burmese refugees in Thailand, particularly those in the Safe Area. In a
1998 report entitled "Unwanted and Unprotected: Burmese Refugees in
Thailand", the New York-based Human Rights Watch advised the UNHCR to
"avoid use of terminology such as ?displaced persons? or ?person of
concern? in place of ?refugees?, given the legal protection, primarily
protection against refoulement, that flows from being a refugee." The
report further recommended that the category of "border cases" be
abandoned altogether, and called on the Thai government to ratify the
1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.
Critics say that the UNHCR?s care with words is more a reflection of its
delicate diplomatic relationship with Thailand than an attempt at
precision in distinguishing among the various types of refugees who have
fled to the country. "Obviously the Thai government wants to close down
Maneeloy," remarked one aid worker familiar with the situation at the
Safe Area. "That?s why they don?t want anyone else recognized as POC.
That explains why the UNHCR is listing so many as border cases, even
when they obviously don?t fit into that category."
Privacy is non-existent for residents
Most rejected cases say they believe the MOI has leaned on the UNHCR to
limit the number of refugees it recognizes, in order to deter others
from seeking asylum in Thailand. However, de Riedmatten denies "the
allegation that the Thai government is exerting pressure on the UNHCR to
reject cases in the refugee status determination procedure. We do
guarantee that it is conducted in an independent manner, with the full
responsibility of the decisions resting with the UNHCR."
Although the UNHCR reached an agreement with the Thai government in 1989
allowing it a role in dealing with Burmese asylum-seekers (after an
earlier Thai program to "voluntarily" repatriate many dissidents met
with international condemnation), the Safe Area remains firmly under the
control of the MOI. Armed guards patrol the camp, and residents are
permitted to leave only with special permission. Use of pay phones is
strictly regulated, and residents say they must pay even to receive
calls. In 1993, following complaints from residents that they had been
mistreated by guards, an official announced that the government had
"strictly enforced measures to ensure that the Burmese students will not
contact NGOs to complain. This must be done to uphold the country?s
These days, many will happily trade their two hours a week outside the
camp?s gates for a chance to have contact with outsiders. Sitting at a
teashop while others buy cheap clothes or vegetables, they defy their
troublemaker image with impeccable politeness. But frustration
inevitably comes to the surface, as they describe the discriminatory
treatment of some of their fellow residents. Border cases and residents
admitted after October 1999 are denied health care and receive only dry
rations, they say, forcing others to pool their meager resources to
provide them with adequate supplies of food and medicine. They speak of
solidarity, but hint at divisions: "The Thais want us to fight each
other," says Htay Tint, head of the human rights department of the
Burmese Students Association, the only officially sanctioned political
organization in the holding center. "If the camp is unstable, it will be
easier for them to shut it down."
With various ethnic minorities now making up most of the camp?s
population, some friction among different groups has been inevitable.
But for most, the real internal conflicts have been psychological, as
years of uncertainty and feelings of "political humiliation" take their
toll. Drug abuse and failed relationships afflict many who cannot
reconcile their self-image as freedom fighters with the reality that
they are forced to live like convicts in a democratic country. Many
maintain their dignity by continuing their political activism despite
official disapproval, but even they feel burdened by their
powerlessness: "Guilt is a very pressing mood among us," says Khaing
Htun Aung, recalling both friends who never managed to escape Burma, and
those he will be forced to leave behind when he resettles in a third
country later this year.
But guilt is for the relatively fortunate: For the rest, another emotion
comes to the fore. Asked about his prospects for the future, one "border
case"?a member of the Karen Solidarity Organization, a group that has
been branded as "traitors" by the dominant Karen National Union?replied
that he felt "only fear". With the murder of U Zin Maung, a Burmese monk
who was killed just outside of the camp last December, despite being
under constant surveillance, that fear has grown into a presentiment of
what awaits many in a country where they know they?re not wanted.
The Washington Times: Military opening the gates in Myanmar
July 21, 2001, Saturday, Final Edition
Georgie Anne Geyer
MANDALAY, Myanmar. - Here in the north of this mysterious country
historically known as Burma, the brutal military regime thinks it is
being very clever. It is encouraging its hulking, powerful neighbor to
the north - China - to act as a balance against the country's many
tribes and their hatred of the regime.
Chinese immigration is barely controlled on Burma's untamed northern
borders. Chinese businesses are omnipresent here, and in this historical
city most of the signs are already in Chinese. Even Mandalay's streets
have been vehicularly Sinocized: They are jammed with bicycles. Some
analysts even say Chinese is now the major language here and that, in
some areas, tribal men are mostly wearing Chinese military uniforms.
The military dictatorship's rewards for this, shall we say, "open door"
policy are substantial. Since 1988, Myanmar/Burma has been using its
gigantic neighbor to expand its armed forces, to keep itself in power
against a bitterly oppressed people who are now the poorest in Asia, and
to force the many ethnic insurgent groups here in the north to agree to
China has responded smartly to its neighbor's need to repress
efficiently. In the past 11 years, it has provided military equipment
amounting to the value of roughly $3 billion, which has allowed the
military to double its force to 450,000 soldiers today, even though the
country has no outside enemy lurking about that anyone can fathom.
But . . . clever? This kind of cleverness is surely of a classical
nature. In an earlier era, it led the Trojan city fathers to open the
gates and invite in a giant wooden horse.
For when one looks at the demographic patterns of China today, one sees
something very interesting indeed. This is the fact that, like an inland
sea gradually but persistently overflowing its riverbanks, China is
consistently pushing its population out across its borders in all
directions, using every tool and vehicle, every ruse and excuse, it can
The Burma situation is abundantly clear once one is here, although
rarely covered because virtually no journalists are allowed into the
country. Tibet, forcibly made part of China but a unique culture that
has long dreamed of independence, is now being colonized internally by
Han Chinese, and few believe the Chinese will stop until they form the
majority in the gorgeous mountain kingdom.
The huge, oil-rich Sinkiang Province in far western China was
historically composed almost entirely of Uighur and Kazakh tribespeople,
people of Turkic origins. Through deliberate colonization by Han Chinese
from the coast, Sinkiang now has a Chinese majority of at least 51
percent. And along the extensive and open Chinese-Russian border -
despite the theatrically friendly meetings between Chinese and Russian
leaders in their respective capitals - various communities on the
Russian side are forming committees to anticipate unwanted waves of
This people pressure will continue. With an overpopulation of 1.3
billion and still growing, China is running out of both land and water.
The Yellow River, the cradle of China's civilization, has almost stopped
flowing; in the north, whole rivers no longer exist and water tables are
falling precipitately; desertification expands every year. Where,
indeed, will all the Chinese go unless across their borders?
This is meant to be not so much critical, but alarmist. The Chinese,
like all peoples, have a right to move in accordance with international
law and norms, and there is no evidence here, for instance, that they
are forcing themselves upon the Burmese (although in the 1980s, the
Chinese-trained Burmese Communist Party did indeed do just that).
Other nations that should know better, such as Israel and Singapore,
supply arms to this regime in Myanmar, one of the most cruel and
repressive military dictatorships in the world. ("Commerce," they
cynically call it.)
The world should observe this fascinating but pitiful land to see the
inexorable outcome of overpopulation and environmental degradation.
Burma's north is one of the most compelling places in the world. There
are dozens of tribes, some with hundreds of thousands of people. The
Shan, one of the major tribes, were protected by the British
colonialists before they left in 1948, and still have an anti-regime
"Shan Army." The Riang have their front teeth capped with gold inlaid
with ruby and green jade. One tribe, which apparently migrated here in
ancient times from long-lost northern frontiers, still sews snowflakes
into its beautiful embroidery.
Most still have tribal governments but are at the mercy of the military,
which regularly rounds up people for forced labor, sends people for the
slightest suspicion to prisons from which they do not return, and
imprisons them for 21 years for having a fax machine. The military has
tried to make a kind of "peace" with the tribes, and a number of
cease-fires have been signed. But the oppression - and the aimlessness
of a country with no ideology except that of continued power for the
leaders - continues.
Is it any wonder that China looks south to Burma's picturesque
mountains, open space and witless government?
Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.
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